Fists, bribes, guns and wheels: Plugger Bill Martin, cycling’s first official hard man

March 2, 2016

One by one, the riders entered Martin’s hotel room. On the bed, bribes were laid out in piles of notes and sovereigns; Martin, loaded revolver by his side, addressed each successive visitor, stating the terms of their contract. “Quite right, Bill,” came the replies. Notes and coins changed hands and were signed for.

Soon afterwards, ‘Plugger’ Bill Martin was the 43 year old scratch champion of Melbourne’s Austral cycling race by 15 lengths and notorious Melbourne bookie John Wren was many thousands of dollars richer.

That was in 1901. Ten years earlier, and Martin was busy winning the first male-only Madison Square Garden Six Day ‘grind’ on a high wheel, a year after he turned professional. It was the beginning of a long career…

Plugger Bill. A cycling accident left him with one leg shorter than the other. It didn’t slow him down.

Man of the world

Dublin-born William Walker Martin moved to America with his parents at the age of three. He left school at 14, becoming an assistant to exotic goods traders and travelling to Europe, South America and Africa. Having started his sporting career as a ‘professional footrunner’, Martin took to the wheel as a professional in 1890, five years after he began cycling and right at the beginning of what would prove to be a lucrative decade for cycling.

That first Madison Six, organised by former pro-rider Tom Eck and New York Times sports-reporter-turned-promoter, James Kennedy took place in October 1891, in the newly re-built Garden. The Chicago Tribune described the track as 18 feet wide and 16 laps to the mile, with raised turns ‘so as to permit fast racing around them.’

By all accounts, it was a record breaking event. Martin’s victory, at 1466 miles and 4 laps added 60 miles to the fourth-placed Albert Schock’s previous record. Scottish champion John Dunlop Lumsden broke the world record for the half mile in a crowd-pleasing exhibition sprint. Twelve thousand people reportedly crammed into the Garden to watch the remaining six of the starting fourteen finish the final laps. There was an argument over the prize money; a trend was begun and a legend was born.

JD Lumsden, Scottish champion and crack cyclist.

The Cast Iron Man

Martin’s appeal lay as much in his character as his not-insignificant sporting prowess. The red-head from Detroit lived up to just about every hard man stereotype in the book.

A cycling accident less than a year before his Madison Six win left Martin with one leg shorter than the other and a life-long pronounced limp. It was his dogged ability to grind out victories that earned him the nicknames ‘Cast Iron Man’ and ‘Plugger.’ His short temper and readiness with his fists earned him a reputation for trouble that ensured both publicity and a loyal following.

With the 10 and 25 mile world championships under his belt in 1894, Plugger hit the European circuit in 1895. Seventy wins later and the prize money on a booming Australian cycling scene caught his eye and his first Austral win in 1896.

1897 saw further investment in his bad boy image, pre-empting Thomas Voeckler by more than a century when he dismounted and chased an abusive Sydney fan through the crowd. Unlike Voeckler, Martin gave his big-mouthed spectator a hiding. Further fisticuffs followed at the Adelaide Exhibition Oval in October, where an administrator who banned him for two months at the previous year’s event (Martin punched fellow rider AB McDonnell who, he claimed, had deliberately run him into the track railings) received his comeuppance; Martin found himself behind bars for two weeks, with hard labour. Crowds at his races reached record numbers while Plugger took care of the records on the track, riding in every Australian colony between 1895–1901 and winning 249 races, the most famous of which was that 1901 Austral, which he won from scratch by fifteen yards.

If there was skulduggery, only one rider paid a price: Tasmanian Frank Beauchamp was found guilty of pacing Plugger and banned for life. Seven riders were questioned at an inquiry and all denied wrongdoing. Plugger himself admitted he knew Wren had backed him to win £7000; in an interview with The Lone Hand magazine in 1907, Martin’s trainer for the race, ‘General’ Henry Gordon claimed his charge told him it had cost £3200 to fix it. At the time, a cottage in St. Kilda cost £75. The description of events at the beginning of this story come from Gordon’s account.

John Wren, legendary Melbourne businessman.

Bribes, beatings and record breaking rides, Plugger became the stuff of legend Down Under. He retired in 1903, got married to an Australian woman before eventually settling in New Zealand. He made one last return to the track at the Melbourne Cricket Ground — a 1933 veteran’s event, in which he came third. He died in Perth on March 28th 1942, aged 82.

When we went to see the cycling on the Melbourne Cricket Ground,
How we hollered and shouted as the Plugger whistled round.
With his ‘trilbies’ both a-movin’ as quickly as you like,
And his youthful hands a-grippin’ both the handles of his bike.
With his auburn hair a-floatin’ like a banner in the breeze,
With his quarters up to heaven and his head between his knees;
With his body all a-wobblin’ and his features stern and set —
Well, the Plugger made a picture I never will forget. — By ‘The Sportsman’

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